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The Law School Curve

One of the most important reasons for the changing demographics in the legal market is that law schools figured out that the more One Ls a school washes out—by flunking them—after first year, the less tuition revenue it will receive in the second and third years.  It is much more financially prudent to pass students along and collect two more years of tuition. Let people finish their degrees and the let the job market sort out the ultimate winners and losers.

The result is that the real sorting happens in the job hunt that takes place in the Fall of the Two L year, after One L grades are in concrete, and then again during the Fall and Spring of third year, when the job search is on in earnest. Let’s be plain here: the top 30% or so of law students—the same students that would have been the only ones to survive law school in the past—are the ones that have the easiest time finding jobs. The bottom 70% struggle.

Now, of course we all know there are a host of factors other than rank that figure into the hiring process to some degree. Your personality matters. If you are obviously a jerk or a moron, it is going to be hard to get a job. If you have relatives that are lawyers or have solid connections to significant legal employers, that will certainly help. Can you interview? That makes a difference, of course. Miscellaneous other factors play a role, small and large. True enough. But say what you want, all other things being equal, the place you rank in the class is by far the most important factor in the job finding process.

So let’s revisit what we are trying to do here, in stark terms: How do we place in the top 30% by the time the two major job hunts start in earnest?

The first thing that you need to understand is that for most students finishing in the top 30% of the class is a clearly achievable goal. Do you hear me? Most students in law school are capable of finishing in the top third of their class. That probably includes you. Consider the curve of the typical law school class after the second year of law school.

Law school grades are almost always put on a bell curve that looks something like this.  On the farthest right end of the curve is the top 10% of the class, or in our example, the top 14 students. If you are in this bunch, you are on track for the best jobs: judicial clerking jobs, and jobs with the best firms. Getting into this bunch is probably the most dependent on pure brain power, because this group is going to have an excellent studying approach for exams and exceptional brain power that gives them an edge over all other students. You stay in the top 10% over four semesters of exams because you are operating at a very high level for a long time.

It is also probably the case that the bottom 10% of students over a two year period could probably do very little to improve their standing. To end up in the bottom 10% over three years probably means one of two things: (1) your life circumstances are such that you cannot devote the time and focus necessary to learn what has to be learned for exams; or (2) you can learn it, and you do, but you don’t have the particular kind of skills one needs to perform well on the law school written exam. There are a number of reasons why this might be: test anxiety, difficulty organizing exam answers, comparably slow response times to produce answers. There could be other reasons.

At the high point of the curve, where most students are, is a GPA of a “C”, which generally includes about 45-60% of any law school class. At most schools about 50-70 students of the 140 that will survive the fi rst two years of law school.  If you end up in this group, you are not on either of the remote ends of the curve, you are in the large “rest of us” category: the “huge middle.”

Now, let’s brainstorm about how one ends up in the huge middle. In my view of the world, the main reason most end up in the huge middle is not what most people are going to assume. I suppose it could be that the people in the middle simply don’t have the personal will to do more work than the norm. They do the amount of work that everyone else does, and so they end up in the place everyone else does: the middle of the curve. That includes a good chunk of folks, I am sure.

Still, after being a One L myself, and then teaching One Ls for more than 10 years, my conclusion is that the reason most people end up in the middle is not primarily related to the amount of work that a person is willing to do. I am persuaded that many of my friends in law school who ended up in the middle of our class worked much harder than I did.


  1. LGonzal
    Posted March 6, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think you will do a good job of convincing people to enroll in law school. Nobody wants to pay a hundred thousand dollars to attend a school where lots of hard work and effort gets them only a C or B. Everyone knows now that the grading system is a scam, and there are very few real legal jobs out there for graduates, and where you need family and important connections to even come close to getting hired. A law school education should only cost about 10 grand or less, considering what its worth (very little).

  2. Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I am a one L at golden gate university. If the people who end up in the middle are willing to do the work, then why are they in the middle? Do you have an article that speaks on the idea why the curve makes grading so much harder than a non curved grade, like in undergrad? Great article btw “the law school curve”

    Thank you!

  3. Roman
    Posted June 3, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    How is it possible that those working the hardest get in the middle, how do you get in the top third?

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